Jan. 26, 2023
VCU professor Cristina Stanciu on her new book, ‘The Makings and Unmakings of Americans’
A cultural history of Americanization, the book draws from an archive of Indigenous and new immigrant writing and visual culture.
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In a new book, “The Makings and Unmakings of Americans: Indians and Immigrants in American Literature and Culture, 1879-1924,” Cristina Stanciu, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, explores how new immigrants and Native Americans shaped the intellectual and cultural debates over inclusion and exclusion during the nation’s Progressive Era.
The book was published Tuesday by Yale University Press. A cultural history of Americanization, the book draws from an archive of Indigenous and new immigrant writing and visual culture — including congressional acts, testimonies, news reports, cartoons, poetry, fiction and silent film — to provide a rethinking of popular understandings of Americanization.
Stanciu, who is director of the Humanities Research Center at VCU, recently discussed her new book with VCU News.
What sparked your interest in exploring the ties between Native Americans and Eastern European immigrants in the creation of American identity?
I grew up in the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe and my early education on Indigenous issues was sketchy at best. As an undergraduate student in English, I was obsessed with the Southern writer William Faulkner and soon realized that his imaginary Indians had little to do with the reality of Indigenous nations in the region and throughout United States. Over the last 20 years, I became obsessed with real Indigenous histories and cultural representations, which is the focus of my teaching, scholarship and service at VCU. I am also interested in immigrant writing, especially by first-generation immigrant writers. To me, both Indigenous and immigrant writing prompts us to examine and rethink changing definitions of national identity. Who is an American? Who belongs and who doesn’t? What legal and cultural mechanisms determine belonging and exclusion?
In the period I study — the Progressive Era, roughly 1880s-1920s—both the Native people and the new immigrants to the United States were perceived as “problems,” and the federal government searched for solutions. Americanization, the topic of my current book, “The Makings and Unmakings of Americans,” was one of the answers. By 1923, the U.S. had already launched a campaign to assimilate Native Americans through federal policy, neglect, separation from Indigenous communities, a drastically diminished land base and the removal of children to off-reservation boarding schools. On the one hand, the census data and cultural representations painted the picture of Native people as vanishing — the famous “Vanishing Indians” of 19th-century iconography. On the other hand, the new immigrants — and by this term I mean those defined in opposition to the “old immigrants” of Anglo-Saxon extraction — were arriving in large numbers from Southern and Eastern Europe. Immigration restriction was soon on the horizon. Two pieces of legislation I discuss in this book constituted temporary responses to the so-called immigrant and Indian “problems,” spelling out simultaneously inclusion (the Indian Citizenship Act) and exclusion (the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act), both passed in 1924 within months of each other.
When I started researching this book, I was struck by the pervasive use of the phrase “making Americans” in archival documents and titles of pamphlets, books and silent films in the first decades of the 20th century: “An American in the Making,” “The Making of an American,” “Making an American Citizen” … The Progressive Era thrived on the rhetoric of “making Americans”: the belief that, although one was not born an American, one could be “made” into one. In its original context, “making Americans” meant endless possibilities for immigrants dreaming of economic and political futures. In the decades studied in this book, 1879-1924, the “making of Americans” took on several distinct meanings, which coincided with the ebbs and flows of the Americanization movement, from the country’s more hopeful years at the end of the 19th century to the militancy, patriotism and nationalism of the post-World War I years.
What are some of the lasting impacts today of immigrants’ and Native Americans’ efforts to expand the definition of American identity?
As a cultural history, “The Makings and Unmakings of Americans” tells a story of Americanization that scholars have only recently started to reexamine as it brings to the fore the overlapping Americanization campaigns at the turn of the 20th century that attempted to turn both Native Americans and new immigrants into “good Americans.” If, at the beginning of the 20th century, Indigenous activists sometimes appropriated anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric to argue against the inequities burdening Native communities — particularly the lack of recognition of Native people as legitimate citizens of the United States, at a time when immigrants were granted an easier path to citizenship than Native Americans — 100 years later Native activists came together to express solidarity with immigrants and refugees. In 2017, Indigenous activists joined protests against another race-based U.S. immigration ban: an executive order targeting refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, barring Syrian immigrants indefinitely and all refugees from these countries for at least four months.
Contemporary Native historians and activists Nick Estes and Melanie Yazzie, who participated in these protests against the Muslim bans — later popularized by the hashtag #NoBanOnStolenLand — reasserted Native solidarity with immigrants and refugees, reframing the chorus of the popular song “This Land Is Your Land” to “No bans on stolen lands.” This reframing indigenizes a beloved patriotic refrain in an attempt to (re)educate Americans, many of them offspring of immigrants, about their complicity in the settler colonial project. It is also a reminder, in Melanie Yazzie’s words, that “we were here first.” This ongoing Indigenous solidarity with refugee and immigrant communities is part of a global phenomenon against settler colonial domination, extraction capital- ism, and dispossession and exploitation of Black, Brown and Red peoples. As we witness Indigenous sovereignty movements throughout the world — contesting and reclaiming not only recognition by settler states but also territories—counter-sovereignty movements, largely driven by late capitalist modes of extraction, continue to erode possible alliances among Indigenous, immigrant and refugee groups.
What are some of the most interesting things you learned as you developed this book?
As an interdisciplinary project, drawing from many archives, this book contributes several overlapping fields of American studies: Native American and Indigenous studies, as well as literary studies, visual studies and immigration studies. Yet, it uses the better-known story of immigration to tell — and amplify — the lesser known of Indigeneity. The research for this book took me to many archives in the U.S. (Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Newberry Library, Beinecke Rare Book and Ms. Library, and others) but it started in the university archives at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign when I was a graduate student. There I found materials about two authors who later became central to my study. Like me, they are also alumni of that university: Dr. Carlos Montezuma, an Apache doctor and a Native activist and writer. The image on the cover of my book is from the frontispiece of his newspaper, “Wassaja.” The second unexpected discovery was of Jewish writer Marcus Eli Ravage (also born in Romania), who was a graduate student in English at my alma mater in the 1910s and who wrote an immensely popular immigrant autobiography, “An American in the Making” (1917). The rest is history … more precisely literary history, expanding the literary canon to include lesser-known American writers and activists, and to try to tell a story of Americanization on both Native and immigrant terms.
Archival research is laborious and unexpected, often taking many years to complete; I hope my work does justice, respectfully, to the faces behind the screen and the voices behind the pen. Two of my favorite archives I serendipitously stumbled across are the immigrant writing specimens in the National Archives and the Carlisle students’ letters in the Pratt Papers at the Beinecke Library, which share more similarities than I initially hoped. These were letters and documents immigrant students in Americanization classes and Indigenous students in Indian boarding schools produced. The silent film footage on Americanization I chanced on at the Library of Congress confirmed the role silent film played in spreading the gospel of Americanization. One unexpected turn of the project has been toward silent film and the simultaneity of this new technology with mass immigration and the Americanization efforts. The emerging film industry was key in supporting and disseminating visual materials in local and national Americanization campaigns in the early 1910s. An influential medium, documenting and informing modernity, film enabled white directors and producers to bring representations of Native people to white audiences, which reinforced white supremacist ideology and perpetuated myths of savagery. Silent film responded to white America’s obsession with race. In the book’s last two chapters, I show how silent film, as a new medium of both entertainment and persuasion, facilitated the work of Americanization: on the one hand, it purported to educate; on the other, it served local and national Americanization projects.
How do you hope this book will make an impact on readers?
I hope readers will think about the U.S. as “a nation of immigrants” and ask themselves: what does this phrase erase/hide/obscure? What do contemporary Indigenous peoples think about this phrase? We live on Indigenous lands and have yet to come to terms, as a nation, with the long history of genocide and trauma the United States has inflicted in Indigenous communities. This is also the story of America. The U.S. now has 575 federally recognized tribes, in addition to tribes recognized by states. Courses in Native and Indigenous literatures and history are now part of college curricula, including here at VCU. This is not to say that immigrant groups did not make significant contributions to building this country. They certainly did and continue to do. I also hope readers will enjoy learning about the wealth of Indigenous and immigrant literatures in the U.S. and the contributions both groups made not only to literary history but also to important debates about national identity.
Working within the “nation of immigrants” framework obscures other aspects of national formation and the opportunity to wrestle with a traumatic history rooted in the genocide of Indigenous people, African American enslavement, and the exploitation of immigrant labor. The disavowal of these origin narratives prevents the recuperation, rethinking, and rewriting of a story of America where Indigenous people do not disappear into a sepia landscape and where settlers do not prevail.
Is there anything else you think readers should know about your new book or about this topic in general?
During the period I study, the Progressive Era, Americanization signified assumed compliance to norms of homogenization, patriotism and allegiance to forms of nationalism, embraced by many immigrant communities yet antithetical to many Native communities’ conception of sovereignty. A key distinction between Indigenous people and (im)migrants is that, unlike immigrants, Indigenous people are members of sovereign nations. Yet the continued erasure of Native Americans from the story of America over the last few centuries has legitimized the larger settler colonial project of elimination and territorial expansion. As Americans, born or naturalized, we have a responsibility to know the history of the makings and unmakings of Americans.
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